23 March 2009
Good morning conference. I hope you’ve been having a wonderful time here in Blackpool and have had a chance to soak up the sea air and sunshine.
It’s great to be here in our target region of the North West and to hear about the excellent work of Green Councillors and activists in Lancashire.
On behalf of us all, I’d like to thank the conference organisers and our hosts, for making the last few days so enjoyable and successful.
1. The Economic Crisis
It would be easy to find reasons to be gloomy.
Since we last met, the economic crisis has deepened, warnings on climate chaos have become starker than ever. And Gordon Brown’s head is lodged even deeper in the sand.
But, the discussions and debates that I’ve heard around these rooms in the last few days give me real cause for hope.
As Greens, we have the answers to the most pressing problems of the day. While the Government remains mired in muddy thinking and outmoded policies, more and more people are echoing our calls for action: action on the economy, action on social justice, and action on climate chaos,
The recession is a disaster for this country – especially for the poorest in our society.
People are feeling insecure. They are worried about their savings, about their jobs and about their homes. People have lost trust in the whole financial system. And they have lost trust in this Government to lead the way out of this mess.
While the Government tinkers at the edges of a broken-down system, we Greens are demanding a root-and-branch transformation of the banking sector. We must move away from the failed system of huge private banks gambling on the global casino.
Instead, we must build an economy that serves communities and meets people’s real needs.
The big banks got too greedy – they took huge risks to boost short-term share values. They handed out loans to people who could never afford to repay. They bought and sold these dodgy loans in a scramble to make a quick buck.
It’s a crazy system that makes people into debt-slaves and puts everyone’s security at risk.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
We must regulate the banks to reign in these dangerous excesses. We must bring an end to bonuses that encourage reckless risk-taking. And we must make sure the Government learns the lessons of this disaster.
2. Ethical Banks
The worst thing Brown and Darling can do is return Northern Rock, and the other nationalised banks, back to the market in their current form.
The best thing they can do is to break up these failed monoliths to create smaller, accountable, community banks, which are a force for good.
Look at the financial institutions that are weathering this storm. They are the ethical banks – the banks that people trust with their money. They are the mutual societies and credit unions that share their profits among their members.
Why are they doing so well? Could it be because they didn’t gamble people’s money in the global marketplace?
While big commercial banks played Russian roulette with virtual dollars, ethical banks and mutuals invested in real projects, supporting local businesses and social enterprises.
People have stuck with ethical banks and mutuals, not just because their money is safer, but because their profits don’t come at the price of human lives. Have you ever heard of a credit union investing in the international arms trade? Or an ethical bank that funds sweatshops and deforestation?
The Government should be promoting and encouraging ethical, reliable banking.
But what is the Labour Party doing instead?
Brown and Darling are charging all banks and building societies for the interest on Government loans to failed banks. This is unfair and inexcusable. Ethical, responsible banks must not be punished for the mistakes of the greedy, reckless risk-takers.
For decades, Greens have been at the forefront of campaigning for secure, ethical banking. And we don’t just talk about it. Thirty years ago, at a Green Party conference, we sparked the idea for a building society that would only give loans for green projects.
And today, the Ecology Building Society is still going strong.
Up and down the country, ethical banks and building societies have helped local businesses and environmental projects get off the ground. In my home city of Norwich, a local organic greengrocer was set up with investment from the ethical bank, Triodos. And someone I know personally has recently set up a tuition agency with a loan from a credit union.
3. The Green New Deal
With a Green New Deal, we could create many more good news stories across the country. We could transform the banking sector, restore a stable economy and create hundreds of thousands of new green jobs.
On Friday, Caroline gave examples of the green jobs that could be created: 200,000 jobs in providing local food, and hundreds of thousands in home energy saving measures and renewable energy.
The North West Green Party is about to publish its regeneration plan for this region. It will show that, along the Fylde coast alone, renewable energy could produce enough electricity to power 340,000 homes, providing clean energy that will keep people’s bills down and reduce our dependence on oil imports.
But Gordon Brown’s proposals are a muddled and dangerous response to the economic and environmental challenges we face. Under his plans, we’ll churn out yet more carbon emissions from new coal-fired power stations and a third runway at Heathrow. Brown’s plans for new nuclear power stations will swallow up public funds that would make a much bigger difference much more quickly if invested in renewable energy.
4. Public Services
But it’s not just about new jobs in green industries. At this time of recession, we need to protect existing jobs and improve standards in our public services. When we last met, at our autumn conference in London, I criticised the Government’s plans for more privatisation in our public services. I highlighted the threat to local health centres from polyclinics, and the risk to our children’s education from corporate influence over academy schools.
But not only is the Government pressing ahead with these plans – it’s now getting worse. Gordon Brown is determined to privatise more of our public services, and guess who he’s brought back to drive through the juggernaut of privatisation?
Brown has gifted Peter Mandelson a life-time peerage - a life-time seat in Parliament, immune from the democratic will of the electorate. Now Mandelson is working to undermine democracy even further by breaking Labour’s manifesto pledge to keep the Royal Mail in public hands. Mandelson plans to sell off one-third of the Royal Mail - a move that would threaten jobs, rural collections and daily deliveries. This is the start of a slippery slope that no amount of spin can cover up.
The Green Party fully supports the campaign of the Communication Workers Union to keep the Royal Mail public.
The failure of this Government to run our public services effectively is no excuse for privatisation. It is the task of Government to provide high quality public services across the board. This must include a high-class education system that is available to all, not just those who can afford it.
Universities are reporting a surge in the number of students applying for hard-ship loans. More and more students are struggling to pay their fees and complete their courses. And it could get worse. Last week there was a mass student lobby of Parliament against increasing maximum tuition fees from £3000 to £7000 pounds per year.
When Charles Clarke first introduced top-up fees in 2003, I was among the students and Green campaigners rallying against them. We knew they would be a barrier to poorer families. We knew they would widen the inequalities between rich and poor in this country. We are seeing this happening today.
But how does Charles Clarke respond?
In recent days, he has claimed that the argument for tuition fees has been won. And he’s calling for more user-charging in education and more user-charging in the national health service.
It is clear that only one party is fit to be the guardian of our public services.
The Green Party remains committed to a high-class education for all, free at the point of delivery.
Yes, those who earn more as a result of their degree should pay more back to society. But, the fairest way to properly fund education and other public services is to increase income tax for the highest earners.
5. The Work Of Green Councillors
The Greens are leading the fight to save our public services and improve the environment. Across the country, Green councillors are working with local communities to protect post offices, local health centres, and school playing fields.
In Oxford, our Green county councillors helped secure full care packages for vulnerable people. In Norfolk, and here in Lancashire, our Green county councillors played a leading role in the successful campaigns against waste incinerators. And Green councillors up and down the country are standing up for local communities in the fight for lower bus prices and for a living wage for the poorest paid.
All this has only been possible thanks to our members. It is your hard work and your campaigning that has got Greens elected to councils across the country. Elected Greens are making a huge difference, but there’s much more that we can do.
Green councillors don’t grow on trees – they grow from the leaflets that you plant in letterboxes, and from the seeds that you sow in conversations on doorsteps in target wards.
On the 4th of June, we can elect even more Greens in the county council and European elections, and build up target wards for future district elections. The work we do now will stand us in good stead for the general election. That election could be called at any time, so let’s make sure we’re well-prepared. We must select our candidates this spring. Selecting now will ensure we have a record number of Green candidates across the country. Just as importantly, it will bring a smile to our election agent Chris Rose’s face.
In our target constituencies – in Brighton, Lewisham and Norwich – we must run our strongest ever campaigns. And we can and must, make the breakthrough into Westminster.
We face a tough fight in the European elections this June. But let’s resolve today that we will do the grassroots campaigning to ensure success.
The work and record of our existing MEPs, Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas, over the last 10 years, is second to none. So let’s shout about it. Let’s tell everyone what afantastic job they are doing, and let’s make sure Jean and Caroline are re-elected.
The Green message has never been more important. It’s crucial that we get even more Greens in the European Parliament. In my region, Eastern, we are running a strong campaign to elect Rupert Read as our MEP. We have reasons to be confident. We now have councillors in every county in the region. And we have trebled our number of councillors since 2004.
But we’re not resting on our laurels. Every single vote will make a difference.
Here in the North West, as we’ve seen in the last few days, Peter Cranie has strong prospects of being elected. It was hugely inspiring to take part in yesterday’s mass canvass in Fleetwood, and to help harvest more votes for Peter’s campaign.
Let’s take back that inspiration to our own target wards and regions, and continue this vital work right through to the 4th of June.
This is our time. When people hear our message and see what we are achieving, they vote for us. People from across the political spectrum are turning to us because they trust us. They believe in our values. They see that we get things done.
Good luck with your campaigns. We can do it! And at the next conference, we’ll celebrate our successes together.